By Francesca Norsen Tate
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Ramadan and Elul Offer Chance to Reflect, Learn from Each Other
Passersby on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade on Wednesday morning observed a group of people from the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue who gathered to usher in the Hebrew month of Elul, against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline.
The 45-minute outdoor Rosh Chodesh service focused on renewal and prayers for the gathering, for healing, justice and intercessions on behalf of those in need. Rosh Chodesh is the Hebrew term for the first day of a new month. Many synagogues observe the new month, particularly as Elul is a preparation for Rosh HaShanah. Present were more than enough worshipers for a minyan—the required minimum of 10 Jews for a prayer service.
Rabbis Serge Lippe and Molly Kane led the service, reading from the Book of Numbers in Torah, and offering reflections and insights on Elul.
Speaking on the tradition of blowing the shofar daily between the first day of Elul and Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Kane said, “One of the reasons we do this is to wake us up. We’re supposed to be woken up, have a spiritual awakening.” Whereas an accounting year/fiscal year ends on June 30, for example, she explained, “let’s think about the process of accounting, the process of seeing where you’re at. How do we want to change this year? What relationships do we have to make right this year? This is the moment of returning to those thoughts and beginning that process.”
“We as a community will gather sort of also on the banks of the river—but farther down. I want to invite you to think about where do you want to be then when we come together for Tashlikh (on the afternoon of Rosh HaShanah), farther down the Promenade—at another pier? What do you want to have accomplished? How have you wanted to move in the direction of change between this moment on the first day of Elul and that moment of Tashlikh on Rosh Hashanah?”
Tashlikh is the Jewish practice of casting one’s sins on the water, a rite that takes place on the afternoon of Rosh HaShanah.
Rabbi Lippe shed insight on the lighter side of the daily shofar blast, with references to an old Ashkenazi tradition about Satan (who in Judaism is not the devil but the heavenly accuser, with name accented on the second syllable).
“Whenever a rabbi or cantor stumbles on words—the rabbi knows the words, the cantor knows the words, how can it be—the notion that you got tongue-tied is Satan,” said Rabbi Lippe. “So they would say that you have to scare off Satan. So one of the explanations, believe it or not, for blowing shofar for the entire month of Elul is to confuse Satan, because Satan is waiting to figure out when Rosh HaShanah is, he doesn’t have a calendar!”
Separate from this legend, the shofar blowing has valuable significance for daily life, said Rabbi Lippe. “The blowing of the shofar shakes things loose. Its job is that we shouldn’t be so set in everything we do. We re-examine, from the words we speak, all the routines of our lives that we just kind of go through. The shofar says, no more rote, shake things it up a little. Pay attention.”
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Ramadan Iftars Provide Chance To learn about Each Other’s Faith
Meals were certainly at the center of the month just passed, both for Jews and Muslims. The Islamic month of Ramadan concluded Wednesday night, Aug. 7. During Ramadan, both the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue and the Masjid Dawood hosted an Iftar break-the-fast meal for the clergy and members and local synagogues. Masjid is the preferred Arabic word for mosque (the latter word is originally French). Dates and water were offered to those who were concluding their fast, and then Dr. Ahmad Jaber, immediate past president of the Brooklyn Heights Clergy Association, led prayers.
This year, the clergy and members of Congregation Mount Sinai were also present for the Iftar.
During the synagogue’s July 24 Iftar, Debbie Almontaser and Dr. Ahmad Jaber of the Masjid Dawood spoke on the distinctions between the Islamic faith and Arab culture. Almontaser provided an interesting feminist approach to the subject.
"Another aspect of making sure that a woman was recognized and respected was making sure she was a part of society. During the time of the prophet Mohammed, there were women who were in high positions. His first wife, Khadijah, who was the first believer in Islam. When we talk about who was the second person after Mohammed, it was a woman. Khadijah a very wise woman, whom he always went to for advice and consultation. Other women were part of his circle."
“When we talk about Islamic scholarship, and who of those people around him were the most knowledgeable, it was his wife, Khadijah, The one and only individual of that time who knew over 2,000 narrations of his life. And while people were out there trying to survive and struggle, she was one of the very prominent leaders who was helping educate the larger masses about Islam during that time. She also played a role on the battlefield. Not only was she a spiritual scholarship, but she was a warrior.”
“So when we look at what happened 1400 years ago and juxtapose it to what’s happening today, it’s just mind-boggling to see the things that women in Islam have had for over 1400 years. We at some point are still struggling with that.”
Almontaser pointed out, “It’s also important to acknowledge that what you hear and what you see in the media, and what you see in different parts of the world, doesn’t necessarily match what I just shared with you. And so it’s really critical for people to know and understand is what you see is based on culture superseding religion—people taking cultural traditions and customs that they for centuries have continually been doing, and making it seem as though it’s a part of the religion.” She cited as an example the prohibition against women driving in Saudi Arabia. “There is nowhere in Islam that says a woman can’t drive!”
Rabbi Lippe expanded this point. “We see the same thing in Jewish life: Which is, Jewish practice is not only a function of what’s in religious texts, it’s a function of culture. So there are parts of the Jewish world where the culture of that climate—if it was Christian Europe—had different empowerments given to genders than in the Arab world.”
“We still see that as it plays out in, for example, in the Haredi—the ultra-Orthodox circles, where it’s less an issue of what religious law says, we hear, ‘it’s the custom, and we’re not changing it’; even though there’s an actual empowerment.” Marcia Kannry, founder of The Dialogue Project, also spoke about the need to listen, understand and create harmony. She also announced plans for the next citywide Interfaith Teach-In, usually held biannually—to take place this fall at a date to be announced later.
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The following week, on July 31, Dawood reciprocated with an Iftar for members of Congregation Mount Sinai, the Kane Street Synagogue and the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. Rabbi Sam Weintraub of Kane Street, Dr. Jaber of Masjid Dawood,which is also known as the Islamic Mission of America. Also present with greetings were Captain Maximo Tolentino of the NYPD 84th Precinct and Lance Ogiste, representing Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes, as he did last year.
The speakers saluted the mosque’s work in the community since its 1944 founding by Jamaican/Moroccan Sheik Sheikh Dawood Ahmed Faisal. Although various websites give different years as the founding date, the speakers did indicate a history from 1944, and spoke of the mission’s longstanding work with the 84th Precinct to rid the State Street corridor of high crime and drug addicts during the 1960s.
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Of course, food is central to an Iftar, and the meals at both events represented a wide range of cuisine from the Jewish Diaspora, including Morocco and Yemen—which has been prominent in the news this week, including the Aug. 7 announcement that the Yemeni government had foiled a terror plot. But not everyone may know that Yemen is home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Diaspora.
Village Crown Restaurant catered the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue meal, with a popular Moroccan chicken dish, roasted with dried plums and almonds. Ellen Vaknine of Village Crown Caterers, whose husband is an Israeli originally from Morocco, offered some background. “These recipes are from his mother’s kitchen. Our cuisine [repertoire] no longer focuses on one [national] cuisine, we certainly didn’t want to say goodbye to that, it’s delicious. It’s wonderful.”
“Every Moroccan woman would have her own style of Matbucha recipe,” added Vaknine. “Along with the eggplants and the carrots, matbucha is almost like Moroccan ketchup. It’s used as a condiment with everything. If I ever forget to bring home Moroccan matbucha, my husband is truly distressed. It’s delicious, especially with lots of tomatoes. Spices: saffron, cumin, turmeric. Those are the spices I know are on our menus. Cinnamon is used for some of the sweeter items, and paprika.”
Yemen Café at 176 Atlantic Avenue catered the Iftar at Masjid Dawood, with treats such as Haneez, a particular way of preparing lamb, and roast chicken. From Jill Norman’s Herbs & Spices reference book:
Yemeni spice blends include a zhug, which has a foundation of garlic and sweet and chili peppers, plus any spice the cook wants to add, according to Jill Norman’s compendium and must-have reference titled Herbs & Spices. Zhug was a key blend for Yemeni Jews, and is popular in Israel. Many of the masjid’s members are of Yemeni descent.